The master of truthful fiction
By Morgan Hannah, Life & Style Editor
I decided to start the new year off with a MasterClass annual subscription. This subscription gives me access to hundreds of lessons from hundreds of professionals at the prime of their careers. I can learn how to make a perfect Sunday omelet with Chef Thomas Keller, or the importance of the first five pages with Margaret Atwood. Currently, I am learning about truth in fiction from celebrated writer Neil Gaiman. His popular works like Coraline have received many awards and touched even more hearts, and honestly, he’s a great teacher too.
Gaiman talks about conveying truth with fictional stories, which is the most glorious contradiction. He states that writers use memorable lies—taking people who do not exist and things that did not happen to those people in places that also never existed—and communicating true stories to readers.
Gaiman points out how it started with children’s stories which are often these elaborate tales to teach valuable life lessons in a memorable way. Little Red Riding Hood is an excellent example, the story points out how not everyone in life is nice and means you no harm, so it’s probably best not to tell everyone where you’re going and what you’re up to. You may find out that your gramma is inside the belly of a “talking wolf” if you do.
Now, of course we all know that talking wolves don’t exist, but in order to really enjoy and get lost in a story, readers must be willing to suspend their disbelief. However, this is not always an easy ask of a reader. Writers must strive for “verisimilitude,” or truthfulness in their storytelling.
A writer’s goal (beyond having a page turning book that no one can put down) is to be credible and convincing in your tale of a talking wolf, or a stepfather from an intergalactic world, or whatever it might be that you’re trying to convince your audience of. Verisimilitude is most easily achieved through portraying the real world in a story to some degree. However, truth can even be told in fantasy and sci-fi, so long as the rules are consistent with the laws of the created imaginary world. It doesn’t matter how outlandish of a story it is, the story should feel real to the reader. Neil Gaiman uses the following tools in his writing to achieve flawless truth in his fiction:
specific, concrete sensory details
You can talk about an entirely made-up world, but by describing specific details, such as the sweet sugary smell of the red grass around the character, or the persistent noise of a trickling stream, a writer draws readers into concrete experiences which contributes to the sense of reality.
on emotions that are true to the characters
A writer’s hero might be tackling an impossible evil villain, but audiences will be able to relate to the hero’s fear, to the struggle of the challenge.
the familiar alongside the unfamiliar
Grounding the readers in familiar things is just as vital as introducing new and interesting things.
Get the facts straight when writing about something that really exists. If the main character is a ballerina or a scientist, research those lifestyles and what they entail to create a truthful representation. In a magical world, stay consistent with the laws of that world.
time to cover objections
If something isn’t right in story’s world, let the characters notice that it isn’t right for them either. Leaving a character in the dark makes for a less believable character and a less believable story.
Neil Gaiman has found time and time again that in fiction, truth serves a higher purpose beyond creating believably, and that is conveying an emotional truth to readers that will entertain them, help them, change their views of the world, and sometimes even change their lives.